ATLANTA (CN) — Voters are heading to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new mayor after a heated campaign in which race, gender and city hall grudges all came into play.
What's certain is that voters will elect a woman to run Georgia's most populous city. The question is whether they'll elect the city's first white mayor in nearly half a century.
Competing in Tuesday's runoff election are two city council members, Keisha Lance Bottoms, an attorney who currently represents the majority-black district of Southwest Atlanta, and Mary Norwood, who represents the majority-white Buckhead community.
If Norwood wins, she will become the city's first white mayor since Maynard Jackson ousted incumbent Sam Massell in 1973.
Jackson] was succeeded by black mayors Andrew Young, Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin and the current incumbent, Kasim Reed.
Norwood went head-to-head against Reed in the 2009 mayoral election but lost by just 700 votes. It's possible that Tuesday's results could be just as tight.
A poll of 500 registered Atlanta voters commissioned by local news affiliate FOX5 Atlanta last week showed Bottoms with a slight lead at 41.5 percent and Norwood at 38.7 percent. But nearly 20 percent of the surveyed voters said they were still unsure who they might vote for.
In the November 7 general election, Bottoms finished first in a field of eleven candidates — picking up 26 percent of the vote, with Norwood receiving 21 percent.
Although the election is technically nonpartisan, Georgia's Democratic Party stands firmly in support of Bottoms. Atlanta is one of the south's few Democratic centers (Hillary Clinton won Atlanta's Fulton County in the 2016 election by a landslide) and has the race has become increasingly important as the party looks forward to the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
Bottoms has been endorsed by a number of high-profile Democrats, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Booker and Harris both turned out to stump for Bottoms at a campaign rally on Sunday, December 3.
"We've had a great mayor in this city now for years. It's time to pass the baton. And we don't want to pass the baton backward. We want to pass the baton going forward," Booker said at the rally.
Bottoms has also been endorsed by two top local officials -- DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston -- but it is her alignment with current Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed that is proving to be a mixed blessing heading into Tuesday.
Reed remains popular, but his tenure was marked by city contracting corruption probe and he feuded with several candidates running in November's general election, fracturing the city's black vote.
One question that will be answered Tuesday is whether those divisions lead some to support Norwood over Bottoms.
Among those throwing their support behind Norwood is former Mayor Shirley Jackson, who is widely admired in the black community.
“People are trying to penalize (Bottoms) because they believe that she is a puppet of the mayor or that she will do everything he tells her to do,” said Kwanza Hall, a former city councilman who ran in the general mayoral election and now backs Bottoms.
In her speech endorsing Norwood, Jackson alluded to concerns that Bottoms' tenure would be the equivalent of giving Reed a third term.
"I feel like the lack of transparency at this City Hall has crushed the spirit of our city, and I feel like we need a very clean break with this administration and a new start here, with a fresh set of players," Jackson said.
A federal bribery investigation into city contracting ended when two construction contractors pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. One contractor admitted to paying $1 million in exchange for city contracts.
On September 26, the city's chief procurement officer pleaded guilty to taking $30,000 from a vendor in exchange for information about city contracts.
A federal raid on the offices of the PRAD Group, an engineering firm that had over $100 million in city contracts, caused Bottoms to return over $25,000 in campaign contributions from the firm and its associates.
Although Norwood, a conservative-leaning Independent, has received support from Democrats including Atlanta City Council President Caesar Mitchell and former Atlanta COO Peter Aman, critics paint her as a closet Republican. Norwood has participated in GOP primaries and notably refused to endorse Democrat Jon Ossoff in the 2017 special election for the Sixth Congressional District.
During a private meeting with the Buckhead Young Republicans in June 2017, Norwood accused Reed of voter fraud in the 2009 mayoral election and claimed that Reed's campaign bussed voters from public housing projects to polling locations, leading Bottoms to accuse her of using racially "coded language."
"It's a lot harder to drive a van with six felons, you know guys who are going to commit felonies by voting illegally, if somebody's watching," Norwood told the group.
Norwood's claims of voter fraud were never substantiated.
In response, Democrats launched attack ads labeling Norwood "Mary the Republican," and sent out fliers showing Norwood's photo side-by-side with a photo of President Donald Trump. One TV and radio ad asks voters whether the city's next mayor should be "from the party of Trump."
Norwood's campaign fired back with a statement reminding voters that, "[Norwood] voted twice for President Obama and for Hillary Clinton."
But for many Atlantans, a white mayor simply does not represent progress.
"Ladies and gentlemen, don't wake up on Wednesday like we felt on 11/9," Mayor Reed said at a Bottoms rally on Saturday. Reed was referring to the day after the 2016 presidential election.
"There's no way on earth that the city that raised [the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] ... is going to allow ourselves to go backwards," City Councilman Kwanza Hall told the crowd.
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